Let’s Articulate #20 – Is this representation?

Following the massive media excitement about the first “exclusively gay” moment in a Disney movie – LeFou in the new live-action Beauty and the Beast – which turned out to be based on a blink-and-you-miss-it non-event, I got thinking about what actually qualifies as LGBTQ+ representation in artistic media. Here’s what I think.

Dumbledore’s gay. It was a shocking revelation, something which caused countless readers to re-evaluate their understanding of the character, to read more into his relationship with Grindelwald, and to get involved in the discussion of LGBTQ+ representation in literature. And yet, this is not representation in literature. Nowhere in the text of the seven Harry Potter books is the word ‘gay’, or any similar term, applied to Dumbledore, nor is there irrefutable evidence of his attraction to someone of the same gender. It’s just not there. The only ‘proof’ we have of Dumbledore’s sexuality, is the testimony of the author herself – the so-called ‘word of god’.

“In the original text, we have no actual representation”

Perhaps we will finally get proof in one of the Fantastic Beasts films due to come out over the next seven years. But the point is, in the original text, we have no actual representation. Even if we ignore Dumbledore for the minute, what about the thousands of other characters – the kids and teenagers, the adults, the magical characters and the muggles, the non-humans, anyone? Out of all of those, there was never one explicitly LGBTQ+ character in the text of the seven novels. That is not representation.

“Is it enough that Charlie Weasley never shows any attraction towards anyone… to say he is asexual?”

There is a big discussion over what exactly counts as representation in media. Do the characters actually have to explicitly name or define their identities, or is insinuation enough? At what point does ‘implying’ a character is one thing or another move from intentional representation to just audience inference, to nothing at all? Using the example of Harry Potter again – is it enough that Charlie Weasley never shows any attraction towards anyone, that JK Rowling says he’s “more interested in dragons than women”, to say he is asexual? Unfortunately, without anything concrete (in this case, not even ‘word of god’), that identity remains as merely a headcanon, not actual representation.

“Rarely does an LGBTQ+ character get a happy ending or a lasting relationship”

And even where there is true representation, it’s not exactly positive. The Danish Girl may have been stand-out for its depiction of gender transition, but the female lead (a real person) was still played by a cisgender man. And very rarely are transgender characters allowed to exist as part of a story without their identities being the sole focus of the plot. In the same way, gay characters onscreen are often reduced to one-sided stereotypes, rather than multi-faceted, well-developed characters. Certain identities are entirely erased – watching the first episode of Orange is the New Black with Piper unable to say the word ‘bisexual’ was incredibly frustrating. And then there’s the deaths – rarely does an LGBTQ+ character get a happy ending or a lasting relationship (see the ‘bury your gays’ trope).

“Their sexual identities are not their defining characteristics”

But all is not lost. Some authors have been putting actual representation in their books for years, and new authors, who may have formulated their writing style and ideas whilst exposed to these discussions about representation, are increasingly putting out more diverse novels.

Lauren James, a former University of Nottingham student, is now a published author. Not only does her work include canonically LGBTQ+ characters – see the lesbian grandmothers in The Next Together and the protagonist of the sequel, The Last Beginning – their sexual identities are not their defining characteristics. Same goes for several characters in Alice Oseman’s work – one of the central figures in Radio Silence even self-identifies as demisexual, rather than leaving it to reader interpretation.

“Books are better at this than the screen”

Generally speaking, books are better at this than the screen (perhaps just because there’s more written content out there). TV is also in general better at representation than film, and indie films like Moonlight are better at it than Hollywood creations. The more money behind it, apparently, the less diverse the result will be. That is not a good thing, and needs to change.

“We need more than desperate readers reading things into mainstream characters in the hope they will be like them”

My point is, we need more than desperate readers reading things into mainstream characters in the hope they will be like them. We need actual, solid representation, and positive representation at that. And whilst we are getting representation, it’s unfortunately still not centre-stage. Until LeFou (or even better, Lumiere and Cogsworth) can actually say the words ‘I’m gay’ or have a real, non-heteronormative relationship with another character on-screen, Beauty and the Beast will not have LGBTQ+ representation.

“The lack of variety of roles for people of different ethnicities come to mind”

A lot of this goes for other types of diversity as well – the lack of variety of roles for people of different ethnicities come to mind, as does the general lack of disabilities depicted in art. The situation is much the same – representation is of lower frequency than it should be, is often based on stereotypes, and is not mainstream.

“We do not have enough representation”

Until films like Moonlight can become a regular feature at the Oscars, until characters stop being solely defined as ‘the gay best friend’, until bisexuality and a-spec identities stop being erased by Hollywood, and until trans and non-binary characters can be normal individuals without the focus being exclusively on their identities, until queer characters can have fulfilling lives and happy endings – basically, until LGBTQ+ characters are treated just like everyone else, we do not have enough representation. We’ve got a way to go, but we’re getting there.

Isobel Sheene

Image credit: Denise Coronel via Flickr.

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